The City in Fiction and Film, week 21: My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears 1985)

767_BD_box_348x490_originalweek 20

This week we took a step back to think about Black British cinema, but not before picking up on the questions of diaspora discussed last week.

William Safran argues that they are six key characteristics of diaspora:

  • Diaspora refers to people who have ‘been dispersed from a specific original “center” to two or more “peripheral,” or foreign, regions’
  • Diaspora refers to these dispersed communities when they ‘retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland – its physical location, history, and achievements’
  • Diasporic communities believe that ‘they are not – and perhaps cannot be – fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it’
  • Diasporas overwhelmingly ‘regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return – when conditions are appropriate’
  • Diasporic communities ‘believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration or their original homeland and to its safety and prosperity’
  • Diasporic communities often ‘relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethnocommunal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship’

 

Robin Cohen can provide four further tweaks to our understanding of the concept:

  • Diasporas may include ‘groups that scatter for aggressive or voluntaristic purposes’, including revolutionary minorities struggling for a homeland and those travelling for trade reasons
  • Diasporic consciousness depends upon a ‘strong tie to the past or a block to assimilation in the present and future’
  • Diasporas are also defined positively – diasporic consciousness recognises ‘the positive virtues of retaining a diasporic identity’, as well as a ‘tension between an ethnic, a national and a transnational identity’ that is ‘often creative [and] enriching’
  • Members of a diaspora share ‘a collective identity in a place of settlement, putative or real homeland … and with co-ethnic members in other countries’

 

And finally, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur argue that diaspora can be understood as a critique of nation and globalization:

  • Diasporas transmit information, finance, remitted capital and desire across the international borders of nation-states, connecting to those left behind
  • Diasporas are also global capitalist economic formations created by push/pull factors of national economies, regional trading blocs, and other global forces (outmigration and remittance, outsourcing of labour, importation of multinational corporations)
  • Ultimately, diasporas may be produced by power, but it is not always able to control what it produces

As these authors show, diaspora is a complex, contested and sometimes fuzzy concept – and although this can be frustrating when you want to use the idea/term with precision, it is ultimately a good thing since it invites you into a conversation about its meaning, it gives a much bigger picture of human movement around the globe, both historically and in the present moment, and it keeps you from slipping into the kind of simple-minded ‘thinking’ about migration that mainstream media typically evokes in contexts of crisis and panic.

In the 1960s-80s, ‘Black British’ was adopted as an identity by many Britons from the Asian, African and Caribbean diasporas. It was an umbrella term devised and used

not only to trample on a history of negation, but also to find a cohesive voice in order to fight collectively for greater political rights and better representation. It was the shared experience of both colonialism and British racism which united Black British citizens and allowed them to construct an identity for themselves. (Malik 204)

In the 1960s, occasional isolated examples of Black British cinema appeared, typically narrative shorts – such as Lionel Ngakane’s 29-minute Jemima and Johnny (1963) and Lloyd Reckord’s 12-minute Ten Bob in Winter (1963) – or short documentaries – such as Horace Ové’s 46-minute Baldwin’s Nigger (1969), featuring James Baldwin and Dick Gregory, and his 60-minute concert movie Reggae (1970), featuring the Pyramids, Pioneers, Black Faith, Millie, Maytals and Desmond Dekker.

The gradually emerging Black British cinema has been described as ‘the cinema of duty’ – as Cameron Bailey (qtd in Malik 203–4) explains:

Social issue in content, documentary-realist in style, firmly responsible in intention – [the cinema of duty] positions its subjects in direct relation to social crisis, and attempts to articulate “problems” and “solutions to problems” within a framework of centre and margin, white and non-white communities. The goal is often to tell buried or forgotten stories, to write unwritten histories, to “correct” the misrepresentations of the mainstream.

That James Baldwin should then appear in one of the first Black British films is not insignificant, given his own struggle as a writer with the burden of representation, and against being positioned as a spokesperson for African Americans; also, that as a gay author writing about gay and bisexual men (e.g., Giovanni’s Room (1956)), he opens up the importance of intersectionality even when it is strategically important to draw on a larger political identity, such as Black British.

Although it is often easy in retrospect to bemoan texts that are burdened with dutifulness, Jim Pines (again qtd in Malik 204) reminds us that

Such films are important for the way in which they “answered back” to … the “official race relations narrative” … by offering an alternative view of diasporic experience.

In 1975, Horace Ové made the first feature film by a Black British director, Pressure, co-written by Sam Selvon. Broadly neo-realist in style, it follows Tony (Herbert Norville), a second generation Black Briton, whose parents migrated from Trinidad, and captures the day-to-day experience, the lived texture, of blackness in a white racist country. We watched the agonising scene in which Tony goes for a job interview at the county council for a junior accountancy post, and no one was expecting a black teenager to apply. Similar films soon followed, such as Black Joy (Simmons 1977) and Babylon (Rosso 1981); and the first British Asian film, A Private Enterprise (Peter Smith 1975).

Such films tended to fall back into depicting characters as ‘trapped between cultures’, with assimilation into Britishness as the best outcome, and into thinking in overly simplistic terms of positive and negative images (as if there were some kind of single objective position from which such judgments could be made). Also, by adopting social realist visual and narrative style, which tend to be invisible to viewers, the films tended to have the effect of reinforcing the notion that ‘this is the way it is’.

In the 1980s, Black British Cinema can be understood in terms of the development of two production sectors: commercial independent production companies, such as Kuumba Productions, Anancy Films, Penumbra Productions, and Social Film and Video, which were commissioned by mainstream television to produce programming; and grant-aided or subsidised workshops, such as Sankofa, Ceddo, Black Audio Film Collective, Retake, Star, Birmingham Film and Video Workshop, which were – among other things – committed to training people to make films. The workshop sector tended to produce more experimental films (including documentary) rather than narrative features, although this was partly a consequence of what funding bodies were interested in; and as John Akomfrah and others have noted, the sector’s freedom from commercial imperatives gave filmmakers time and space to think, be critical, develop new modes of representing Black people.

And in the 1980s and 1990s, Black British cinema began to emerge as a significant – and commercial – phenomenon, with such films as Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears 1985), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears 1987), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), Wild West (Attwood 1992), Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993) and Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995). Still struggling with the burden of representation, and with the need to be financially successful, they nonetheless tried to address identity in often complex terms. As Sarita Malik writes,

They refuse a simple focus on racial politics and acknowledge other facets of identity. They are multilayered and complex films, not only in terms of narrative, but also in terms of genre, style and film form. As such, they render redundant those critical discourses which depend on the rigid dichotomies of Black versus White, negative versus positive, representative versus unrepresentative, realism versus fantasy, and so on. (210–11)

In the 1990s and 2000s, Black British cinema effectively split in two – partly as a consequence of a broader cultural shift from collective to identity politics. Currently, we have in effect black British cinema and British Asian cinema. The former tends to be comprised of films about inner city deprivation and criminality. Drawing on social problem and gangster traditions/genres, and influenced by hip-hop and US ghetto movies (plus La Haine), it is now sometimes called ‘urban’ film. Examples include Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shank (Ali 2010), Come Down (Huda 2010) and My Brother the Devil (El Haisani 2012). British Asian cinema instead tends to deal with cultural/religious traditionalism vs. secular liberalism, and take the form of social comedies, interethnic romances and Bollywood-style melodrama. In part this is a consequence of a tradition of families attending cinemas together, of British Asians buying and running cinemas that show imported Indian films, and of the role British Indian cinema plays in what has been called pan-Indian cinema – that is Bollywood and other Indian cinemas as well as films produced within the Indian diaspora, such as the films of Indian-Canadian Deepa Mehta. Examples include Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993), My Son the Fanatic (Prasad 1997), Sixth Happiness (Hussein 1997), East is East (O’Donnell 1999), Anita and Me (Hüseyin 2002), Bend it Like Beckham (Chadha 2002), Love + Hate (Savage 2006), Brick Lane (Gavron 2007), Four Lions (Morris 2010), It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (Chadha 2010) and West is West (DeEmmony 2010).

In this context of diaspora, Black British Cinema and the emergence of identity politics and intersectionality, we took a look at Stephen Frears My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), written by Hanif Kureishi. Like Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, it is a film uninterested in touristic views of London. Set primarily in a South London working class neighbourhood, it focuses on the complex relationship between a British Asian middle class and a white working class, and in intergenerational tensions between first- and second-generation British Asians, and in the breakdown of Black British identity, during the period of Thatcher and yuppies. Oh, and it is also about a queer interracial romance.

This mixture – and the history of white racist violence it outlines – combines to offer a vision of London, and of Britain and Britishness, that is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is right next door to – and a million miles from – Passport to Pimlico. Most importantly, it argues that identities, whether of individuals or groups, of neighbourhoods, cities or countries, are always already diverse, hybrid and in transition.

In the final two weeks of the module, we will read Zadie Smith’s NW (2012).

week 22

Core critical reading: Malik, Sarita. “Beyond ‘The Cinema of Duty’? The Pleasure of Hybridity: Black British Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.” Dissolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema. Ed. Andrew Higson. London: Cassell, 1996. 202–15.

Recommended critical reading
Alexander, Karen. “Black British Cinema in the 1990s: Going, Going, Gone.” British Cinema of the 90s. Ed. Robert Murphy. London: BFI, 2002. 109–14.
Braziel, Jana Evans and Anita Mannur, eds, Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.
Givani, June. “A Curator’s Conundrum: Programming ‘Black Film’ in 1980s–1990s Britain.” The Moving Image 4.1 (2004): 60–75.
Parekh, Bhikhu. Rethinking Multiculturalism. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006.
Pines, Jim. “The Cultural Context of Black British Cinema.” Black British Cultural Studies: A Reader. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr, Manthia Diawara and Ruth H. Lindeborg. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996. 183–93.
Rattansi, Ali. Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Safran, William. ‘Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return’, Diaspora 1.1 (1991): 83-89
Sawhney, Cary Rajinder. “‘Another Kind of British’: An Exploration of British Asian Films.” Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 58–61.
Tarr, Carrie. Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.

Recommended reading
For contemporary British Asian fiction, try Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), Aamer Hussein’s Turquoise 
(2002), Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003), Zahid Hussain’s The Curry Mile (2006), Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (2006), Robin Yassin-Kassab’s The Road from Damascus (2009), Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material (2013) and Khavita Bhanot’s Too Asian, Not Asian Enough: An Anthology of New British Asian Fiction (2011).
Memoirs such as Zaiba Malik’s We Are a Muslim, Please (2010) are also of interest.

Recommended viewing
British Asian cinema includes Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears 1987), Bhaji on the Beach (Chadha 1993), My Son the Fanatic (Prasad 1997), Sixth Happiness (Hussein 1997), East is East (O’Donnell 1999), Anita and Me (Hüseyin 2002), Bend it Like Beckham (2002), Love + Hate (Savage 2006), Brick Lane (Gavron 2007), Four Lions (Morris 2010), It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (Chadha 2010) and West is West (DeEmmony 2010).
Multicultural Britain is also on display in films such as A Room for Romeo Brass (Meadows 1999), South West 9 (Parry 2001) and Ae Fond Kiss (Loach 2004).

The City in Fiction and Film, week 20: Dirty Pretty Things

dirty-pretty-things-movie-poster-print-27-x-40week 19

This week’s class was a short one (since we had a lot of admin and related things we also had to cover), so it is even more unconscionable that it has taken me nearly three weeks to write it up.

Before discussing Dirty Pretty Things (Frears 2002), we began by considering the notion of diaspora and different kinds of migrancy.

The term ‘diaspora’ – now used to mean the dispersal of people from their homelands to communities in new lands – was originally used to describe the scattering of the Jews from Judea and into the Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE (the return from Persia in 520 BCE echoed the earlier exodus from Egypt and settlement in Judea). A second diaspora took place in 70 CE, when the Roman occupiers quashed a rebellion and passed laws banning Jews from living in Jerusalem and Judea.

There are other historical precedents, such as the west African slave trade, which began in the late 1400s, with the first African slaves brought to the ‘New World’ in 1502 (just a decade after Columbus ‘discovered’ the West Indies). This slave trade was essential to the wealth of the British Empire (although Britain likes to emphasise its role in Abolition, rather than in the slave trade and the use of slave labour even after Abolition) and to the birth of capitalism and the industrial revolution. After Abolition, there was a stream of diasporas into American from Europe (Irish, Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Catholic Poles, Russian and East European Jews, Italians) and Asia (Chinese, Japanese). There were also Indian and Chinese diasporas into the Caribbean and South America, often in the form of indentured labour.

Such movements, which continue in the present, produce various categories of migrants:

  • Colonial settlers.
  • Transnational corporate expatriates: economic migrants of an elite managerial class, who work in another country while retaining citizenship in their homeland; they move easily across borders. The news never labels them ‘economic migrants’ though, as that is a tag reserved for condemning poor people.
  • Student visa holders: advanced education in host countries is potentially of great benefit to host country as well as homeland.
  • Postcolonial émigrés: post-independence migrants to former coloniser nation.
  • Refugees: targets of persecution, state violence, retaliation, repression, torture or unlawful imprisonment who have been granted asylum within host country (numbers dropping globally, but only because of increasingly draconian asylum processes).
  • Asylum seekers: those whose application for asylum has not yet been processed (and thus are denied the rights afforded to refugees under international law), which is probably the key reason for making asylum processes increasingly draconian.
  • Detainees: asylum seekers held in detention camps. Iin the 1980s, Cuban ‘boat people’ were welcomed in the US as political refugees from a regime opposed by the US, but Haitians fleeing the bloody, CIA-backed Duvalier dictatorship were detained as merely ‘economic migrants’ (almost 45,000 of them held at Guantánamo by 1994).
  • Internally displaced persons: people forced to relocate to another region of their own country due to violence, civil war, ethnic cleansing, political persecution, religious oppression, famine, disease.
  • Economic migrants: workers responding to push/pull of global economy (depression, recession, poverty, famine at home vs labour shortages in another country).
  • Undocumented workers (‘illegal aliens’): people who migrate for various reasons without the required legal documentation.

There are lots of films that explore these different experiences, including The Exiles (Mackenzie 1961), Black Girl (Sembene 1966), El Norte (Nava 1983), White Mischief (Radford 1987), Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Men with Guns (Sayles 1997), Last Resort (Pawlikoski 2000), Demonlover (Assayas 2002), In this World (Winterbottom 2002), Blind Shaft (Li 2003), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), Silver City (Sayles 2004), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), Blind Mountain (Li 2007), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007), Frozen River (Hunt 2008), Sleep Dealer (Rivera 2008), She, A Chinese (Guo 2009), Sin Nombre (Fukunaga 2009), Le Havre (Kaurismäki 2011), Out in the Dark (Mayer 2012).

Kevin Foster, who compares films from the Windrush era – Sapphire (Dearden 1959), Flame in the Streets (Baker 1961) – with Last Resort and Dirty Pretty Things argues that such films, for all their apparent concern with the experience of migrant populations are ultimately more concerned with the ways in which their presence impacts upon and is articulated by the domestic population.

what unites the differing treatments of exile and displacement is their common focus on domestic anxieties regarding British national identity. … these films suggest that the experiences of migrants and asylum seekers … are of less interest to British audiences and filmmakers than what is happening to their own countries and themselves. … The new migrants, like their Commonwealth forebears, are of interest to British filmmakers in so far as they provide a focus for the analysis and treatment of essentially domestic political, social and cultural concerns. (Foster 683, 688)

He also outlines a common set of preoccupations in these films: ‘to explore and map the alien space of the here and now’; ‘what it means to lose one’s place in the world’; ‘what it means to lose the cultural identity that anchors one to [the world]’; ‘what it is to be stateless, lost and adrift’; ‘how, under the manifold pressures of migration, families cope, collapse or coalesce, how their traditional structures and roles shift in the face of unexpected circumstances and unfamiliar needs’; the nature and frequency of ‘improvised’ and ‘quasi-familial arrangements’ for support (688).

While this is all rather uncontroversial, his final point is perhaps more difficult to process: for all the often extreme differences between being a white citizen, a citizen of colour and a newly-arrived migrant (of whatever sort), the appeal of such films to the domestic audience lies in some kind of recognition of a shared experience of precarity and dislocation in a country that is becoming increasingly unhomely to the majority of its own citizens. As Foster writes

Britain may still exercise a magnetic attraction to the descamisados of the modern world but it is an increasingly foreign land to its own people, less a home and more like a hotel where every care or comfort comes at a price. (691)

Our own discussion of Dirty Pretty Things began with its view of London. For a film centred around a reasonably classy central London hotel, it is initially surprising that we  see so few tourists and nothing of tourist London: no Big Ben or London Eye or St Paul’s Cathedral or Southbank or Dome. There is also a strong emphasis on spaces of transition – hotel lobbies and bedrooms, taxis, car parks, tunnels, corridors, Heathrow airport; like Boyz N the Hood, this is a film about mobility and entrapment. Moreover, Frears’ colour palette – bright blocks of colour – give it all a slightly unnatural, constructed feel, despite its location shooting and overall naturalism, as if to insist that there is nothing normal or natural about this city. It is manmade, artificial, and so are the economic and social relations that dominate it. (This idea is extended through the image Senay (Audrey Tautou) has of New York, clearly derived from film and television and tourist imagery – a fetishised irreality she both clings to and knows to be false).

The London we see in the film is like the inverse of Notting Hill (Michell 1999), which ethnically cleansed its eponymous location (as subsequent gentrification is also doing). In Dirty Pretty Things, there are (almost) no white people because it focuses on cleaners, night staff, taxi drivers, and so on – the ethnically diverse working class without which the city would grind to a halt but who are typically marginalised.

The other key idea we discussed was concerned with borders. We tend to think of borders as physical locations whereas they are much more complex than that. They are legal constructs which only sometimes coincide with physical locations around the edges of a country. The apparatus of the border also functions within the enbordered territory. The crude, violent aggression of the Immigration Officers who tear apart Senay’s flat looking for evidence that she is working or accepting rent from a subletting tenant, and the laws banning her from earning any income while her case is being processed are just as much the border as the passport control points through which she and Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must pass on their way into and out of the UK. Just as the ‘transnational corporate expatriate’ is never labelled an economic migrant, so the ban on asylum seekers earning an income emphasise the relationship between wealth and the border. It is this function of the border that drives Senay and others into underpaid labour, sweatshops, sexual harassment and a state of constant precarity – and into the grips of organ harvesters…

Next week, we will take a step back in time to an earlier Stephen Frears movie, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and think about it in relation to Black British cinema and second- and third-generation Black Britons.

week 21

Core critical reading: Foster, Kevin. “New Faces, Old Fears: Migrants, Asylum Seekers and British Identity.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 683–91.

Recommended critical reading
Amago, Samuel. “Why Spaniards Make Good Bad Guys: Sergi López and the Persistence of the Black Legend in Contemporary European Cinema.” Film Criticism 30.1 (2005): 41–63.
Berghahn, Daniela. Far-Flung Families in Film: The Diasporic Family in Contemporary European Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
Gibson, Sarah. “Border Politics and Hospitable Spaces in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things.” Third Text 20.6 (2006): 693–701.
Lai, Larissa. “Neither Hand, Nor Foot, Nor Kidney: Biopower, Body Parts and Human Flows in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things.” CineAction 80 (2010): 68–72.
Loshitzky, Yosefa. Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Monk, Claire. “Projecting a ‘New Britain’.”, Cineaste 26.4 (2001): 34–3, 42.
Pravinchandra, Shital. “Hospitality for Sale, or Dirty Pretty Things.” Cultural Critique 85 (2013): 38–60.
Wayne, Mike. “British Neo-noir and Reification: Croupier and Dirty Pretty Things.” Neo-noir. Ed. Mark Bould, Kathrina Glitre and Greg Tuck. London: Wallflower, 2009. 136–51.
Whittaker, Tom. “Between the Dirty and the Pretty: Bodies in Utopia in Dirty Pretty Things.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.2 (2011): 121–132.

Recommended reading
Contemporary British fiction about the experience of migrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe includes Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (2001), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret
(2005), Fadia Faqir’s My Name is Salma
aka The Cry of the Dove (2007), Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007), Rose Tremain’s The Road Home (2008) and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (2015).

Recommended viewing
British films addressing similar material include Last Resort (Pawlikowski 2000), In This World (Winterbottom 2002), Ghosts (Broomfield 2006), It’s a Free World… (Loach 2007) and She, A Chinese (Guo 2009). Also of interest are Lone Star (Sayles 1996), Lilya 4-Ever (Moodysson 2002), Silver City (Sayles 2004) and The Terminal (Spielberg 2004).